The Secret World made me scream

Funcom doesn't want The Secret World to be easy, and it certainly doesn't want it to be cute. Ragnar Tørnquist, the game's creative director, believes that gamers crave grittier settings and creepier enemies than other MMOs are giving them.

Pushing “mature” content isn't a new strategy for Funcom, the company that's hailed boobies and gore in Age of Conan for years. But after spending a solid day playing The Secret World at Funcom's Montreal studio last week, I was really quite surprised by how that harshness—both in themes and gameplay design—really succeeds at making the game stand out, and gives it both its best and worst features.

[Expletive deleted]

Funcom lays it on early, averaging about one swear word a minute in the intro portion of my new Illuminati character. The fully-voiced cut scenes that introduce most quests provide some great entertainment—when the voice-actors are up to snuff. The illuminati recruiter that picked me up in the opening cinematic is eye-rollingly amateurish, but if the paranoid conspiracy theorist he sent me to made weekly YouTube videos ranting against “The Man,” I'd watch every last one of 'em.

The first real quest I get sets the bar low. The conspiracy theorist believes the Illuminati are spying on him and wants me to find out how they're doing it. There is no waypoint given for this quest—this is one of TSW's investigation missions, designed to get me looking at the world around me and trying to solve the shadowy mysteries of this strange new world I'm uncovering. As I turn around, I just about smack into a giant camera as big as my chest mounted on the wall two feet from the guy's “secret hideout” and pointed right at him. Okay, mystery solved.

Next, I traversed an underground maze to locate the Illuminati headquarter. Simple stuff, and not too exciting yet. And then the mad scientist put me on a crazy drug trip that teleported me to a horrific invasion of black “filth” taking over a Tokyo subway station, with tentacles bursting out of the ground and a corruption that's turning everyone into mindless zombies and giant, creepy-as-hell monstrosities. It's incredible.

Pills here!

The Old Republic recently tried its hand at making a survival-horror dungeon with its Rise of the Rakghouls path, and I just about yawned my whole way through it. This, on the other hand, is downright scary—reminding me of the subway portion of Left 4 Dead's No Mercy campaign. Funcom's artists are downright brilliant at creating environments that match the “this is the world you live in, but everything has gone absolutely crazy in it” theme. Giant black, oily tentacles break through the ceiling and grasp frantically at anything near them, pillars are shattered and subway trains are infested—the entire place gives me the creeps.

And man is it dark! TOR's dungeon dimmed the lights a bit, but The Secret World smashes the nightlight and makes you cry for mommy. On one occassion, I was forced into a pitch-black corridor leading into a destroyed escalator system. It was so dark I could barely make out my character's silhouette, when suddenly a mob of people rushed up the escalator past me. Some were civilians, but there were definitely monsters mixed in there. Their cries and shrieks kick the audio into a frenzy as I panic—I can't make out friend from foe in the chaos of total darkness. I just start firing my shotgun wildly. At this point, I'm content to take the good with the bad, just to move onto someplace where there's light.

And after I battle my way through this horrifying, incredibly detailed shattered world of corrupting evil, I find myself walking around in the Illuminati HQ, which might be the most boring capital city I've ever seen. The walls are plain grey with no texture worth mentioning and no set pieces or differentiating elements for huge lengths at a time. Only a few modern art-style pieces and about 20 NPCs break up the endless flat, grey surfaces that make up this ghost town. The whole place reminds me of an old Quake prison map I used to play.

It's this inconsistency in quality that worries me about The Secret World—I went straight from what might be the most atmospheric area I've ever seen in an MMO to one of the least inspired. To be fair, after playing for a full day, the ratio of awesome areas to lame ones was probably 9:1 (in favor of awesome), but we've seen so little of the game's content so far that that 10% is still troubling.

This covers just a tiny portion of what I got to play last week. Later today, I'll continue our expose of The Secret World with my impressions of Egypt, wherein I play Assassins Creed and cry when I find cultists.